The Lord's view

The Picador Book of Cricket

Edited by Ramachandra Guha <em>Picador, 476pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0330396

When so many cricket books try to blend into their natural habitat by having green jackets, Ramachandra Guha's anthology of cricket writing stands out by appearing colourless. Its jacket is white, the typography lean and elegant, and 19th-century illustrations - of W G Grace and Lord's - adorn the front and back. The readers are thus forewarned: this is a tribute to cricket writing from another age. We are entering holy territory here and must speak in hushed tones: no flag-waving, no beer cans and no room for the kind of flamboyance and enthusiasm displayed by cricket fans from the subcontinent. We are at Lord's, not in Eden Gardens, Calcutta.

Guha laments the disappearance of the (purple) prose of Neville Cardus, the insight of Jack Fingleton, the freshness of Ray Robinson, the erudition of C L R James and the grace of R C Robertson-Glasgow. When such figures dominated cricket writing, words mattered; broadcasting and writing about the game hadn't yet been taken over by retired cricketers. Guha gives ample space to these old masters, and believes that crafted prose is no longer possible in these faster times. In the days of instant replays and multiple camera shots, would it make sense to evoke the lyricism of a perfectly executed square cut?

Guha thinks not. That assumption is a great pity, because it allows him to play safe - with a straight bat, as it were - and the end result is like watching a Geoff Boycott innings: lots of runs, most useful in the long run, but with few flashes of brilliance. Guha is culpable, too, in failing fully to acknowledge the decline of England as a cricketing power.

Yet Guha seemed an encouraging choice to edit The Picador Book of Cricket. He has not only written extensively about the environment, anthropology and history, but, as a reformed Marxist, he has become the bete noire of India's fashionable left. And there are some inspired inclusions here: not least a piece on an American baseball player whose claim to fame was clean bowling K S Ranjitsinhji first ball; another on a swashbuckling Fijian with an improbably long name; a moving elegy by Matthew Engel remembering Colin Milburn, the former England opening batsman; and Sujit Mukherjee's evocative tribute to a Jesuit priest in Patna.

Guha makes a virtue of the pitifully small presence of writers from countries other than England and Australia. (In that, his anthology is a quantum leap, because earlier collections did even less.) The argument that the former colonies are skilled at playing, but not at writing, would have been valid if it were true. This edition, with its emphasis on classicism, cries out for K N Prabhu, the former sports editor of the Times of India, who has justly been called the Cardus of India. New Zealand's Dick Brittenden and Pakistan's Omar Kureishi are other writers who could have been included.

In the relatively short section on memorable matches, space could perhaps have been made for matches you remember for reasons other than cricket. Robert Winder's reports for the Independent from the last World Cup, particularly his heartbreaking account of the boorish behaviour of Scottish fans towards a West Indies side in Leicester, would have pointed out the new dimension that is cricket hooliganism, of which we have seen more this summer. And if former cricketers turned writers are welcome - Richie Benaud and Jack Fingleton are justly included - then some of Sunil Gavaskar's moving pieces of his early days playing in the Shivaji Park, the nursery of Indian cricket, merited space.

In his introduction, Guha writes that his yardstick is literature, not journalism. He points out that Martin Amis has covered Wimbledon and Nick Hornby writes about football, and implies that contemporary authors are not as interested in cricket. Has he forgotten his compatriots, Amit Chaudhury, Dom Moraes and Mukul Kesavan, and, beyond India, the writing of Harold Pinter, Thomas Keneally and Melvyn Bragg? Bolder still would have been the inclusion of Beryl Bainbridge's entertaining essay about her family and its relationship with cricket, or Emma Levine's reports from the 1996 World Cup - not because it would have been politically correct, but because it would have demonstrated that the game's appeal is not gender-specific.

But you can't make a Richards out of a Boycott. Instead of being an adventurous romp through the world of cricket writing, Guha's anthology has settled for the safer option of being a definitive syllabus. That is the collection's strength, but also its ultimate failing, because it remains unlikely that another attempt on this scale will be made in the near future. After all, Oxford (1983) and Faber (1987) have both published cricket anthologies. Guha may take it as a compliment that his anthology sits well alongside those volumes. But today, when even Lord's has a space-age press box, it would surely not have been asking too much for him to have chanced his arm a little, gone for a win in the overs allowed, rather than played for the predictable draw?

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis